Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger Disaster

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

I recently gave a Brown Bag talk on the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the events surrounding it, and its use as a case study for engineering education and communication. There was so much to cover that I couldn’t go into much detail on one of the most remembered and revered figures of the case study: engineer-turned-whistleblower Roger Boisjoly. To fill in those gaps, I’m dedicating this blog to Boisjoly.

About 73 seconds after the space shuttle Challenger launched on January 28, 1986, it exploded, killing all seven astronauts inside while viewers across the country–including school age children watching in their classrooms–witnessed the disaster on live TV. 

Welcome to the SuperHuman Sports League

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

What if athletes could voluntarily replace their limbs with prosthetics to make them faster and stronger?

This question was raised by Otutoa Afu, an STS major in my Intro to STS course. The class has been discussing what it means to be human in a world where technology can radically transform both the human body and the human experience. Some of these advancements have been tremendously positive, such as the blade runner prosthetic that allows amputees to compete in athletic events, but Otutoa’s question highlights the potential complexities that may arise if technological enhancements become more widespread.

Whether We’re Exploring Space or the Ocean, Stories Fuel Science

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

My Introduction to Science, Technology, & Society class recently discussed “space ethics,” and part of that conversation involved weighing the costs and benefits of prioritizing space exploration over other alternatives – most notably, ocean exploration. 

For part of our discussion, I grouped my students into two different teams and gave them a task: one team had to decide how to convince the public to support funding space exploration, while the other team needed to convince the public that it was better to support ocean exploration. 

View of a classroom from the back, looking forward to the large blackboard on the front wall over the backs of many stationary wooden chairs placed very close together.

The Politics of Chairs: What Kind of Classroom Would You Build?

design, The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

A chair is just a chair, right? Well, since you’re reading this blog you probably won’t be surprised that my STS answer is not necessarily – there’s a lot more to it than that. 

Dr. Zhu’s campus talk last month began with a fundamental concept in STS that I’d like to revisit: technologies are not neutral. That doesn’t mean, like some of my students first assume, that technology is simply either good or bad, like an angel or demon sitting on your shoulder. It means that technologies are expressions of things that we value as humans, such as safety, freedom, connection, privacy, and so on. 

A still from The Simpsons: Homer Simpson (middle-aged male cartoon character) with an angel version of himself on one shoulder and a devil version of himself on the other.
Technological non-neutrality is not this simple.

Let’s go back to chairs and specifically those you would find in an in-person college classroom. If you google images for “college classrooms,” you’ll find many pictures of traditional teacher- and technology-focused designs – the ones that probably pop into your own head when you think about a classroom. 

An image found searching Google for “picture of a college classroom” shows a traditional classroom arrangement.

But have you ever wondered why a classroom is the way it is, or if that’s the way it should be? That’s a question that intrigues scholars of built pedagogy, the study of the physical representation of educational philosophies. A fundamental principle of this field is that technologies are not neutral. A classroom is not just a space to learn, but a place that embodies beliefs, values, biases, and ideologies. It is, dare I say it, political in nature. For instance, the built environment establishes what bodies can move in space and how easily. A classroom that one student might easily navigate may feel drastically different for a student with a disability or injury.